dear gayla: the root cellar of our dreams?

historic root cellar, MinnesotaDEAR GAYLA: I wanted to write immediately, because if anyone would understand this latest mad urge, it would be you. Oh help me, please, but I want a root cellar in the very worst way.

a series of letters to a friend

‘DEAR GAYLA’ is how each installment of occasional “out-loud” letters to my garden-blogging friend Gayla Trail of You Grow Girl [dot] com begins. If you want to backtrack, here are links to the first and second letters in our series.

The latest longing for a way to store my garden produce properly overtook me last week, when I was looking for images of roots (as in those ant-farm-like diagrams of a cross-section beneath the soil surface of the prairie).  One of the “autofill” suggestions that appeared when I started typing r-o-o-t into a Library of Congress photo-archive search was the phrase “root cellar,” and I could not resist.

Suddenly, down the rabbit hole into underground repositories of yesteryear I went, touring historic root cellars around the United States that had been surveyed as part of a Historic American Building Survey for the National Park Service, I believe.

I couldn’t help myself; I started clicking on them, imagining carrots and beets, cabbages and apples, potatoes and parsnips and who knows what else all happily tucked in their respective corners. Of cellars like this one, in the state of Washington:

Historic root cellar, state of WashingtonOr another, on the North Bank of Sailor Gulch, near Boise, Idaho:

Boise, Idaho, historic root cellarOr this one from Yuma County, Colorado:

Historic root cellar in Yuma County, COSurvivalist websites, of course, are full of root-cellar (and bunker!) plans, but I was thinking something prompted less by a gloom-and-doom sense of worry than by my hopes for a fruitful year ahead, you know?  I want something romantic, like this one in Minnesota that even has a charming path leading to it, maybe (seen in full up top):

Historic root cellar, Minnesota

My 1880s-vintage basement, with an unmortared foundation, might have been good for root cellaring at one time in its long history, when the now-cement floor was still dirt and the stones were more stable. But it’s none too inviting at this point. A dungeon, really—and I dare not actually introduce edibles to the resident mix down there, which right now is mostly small, furry and four-footed (well, plus the occasional snake in summer).
I do have a substantial bulkhead leading from it to the outdoors, and I suppose that could be lined with animal-proof mesh and turned into a repository, but it’s not big enough to stay just above freezing in a deep coldspell, I fear. I’d have to crack open the door to the rest of the basement to try to adjust it, and that would be a real loss of heat inside. Not ideal. The other tricky part, of course, is that different fruits and vegetables prefer different temperatures and humidity levels. Lots to learn.

Apparently the primary keys to success are temperature, humidity and also one I didn’t think about: ventilation. Cold air from outside needs to drop down into the cellar, and warm air needs to rise, in a sort of ongoing siphoning motion. I’m studying up on how to do that in “Root Cellaring” by Mike and Nancy Bubel, which I just bought a copy of. (I’m giving a couple of copies of it away this week; see the box below.)

In case you’re interested, Gayla, I gathered some article links from among the scraps I’ve read these last days, before my copy of “Root Cellaring” arrived (note: that’s an Amazon affiliate url).  The stories I bookmarked:

Looks like I am going to have to dig a really big hole (which reminds me of this doodle by my friend Andre Jordan that had nothing to do with vegetable storage, but rather with marriage rockiness, I think). Of course I could always just pile it up in a mound…like in this wacky and wonderful 1942ish Farm Security Administration graphic:

1942 Farm Security Administration food storage graphicBe sure to toggle through the stash of root cellar photos over at the Library of Congress. There are even architectural drawings for many of them. Wonderful—even though they were documented in their long-past-prime condition and could use a little TLC to be put back to the test.

Speaking of which: Are you feeling inspired, or energetic? Will you and Davin and Molly be down to help excavate anytime soon? Frost is leaving the ground gradually…please hurry!

More soon.


giveaway: ‘root cellaring’ book

by mike and nancy bubelI’M READING “Root Cellaring” by Mike and Nancy Bubel, and maybe you’d like to read along with me. Two extra copies I bought will be up for grabs to winners chosen at random after entries close at midnight Monday, March 25. To enter, answer this question in comments below:

Do you stash any homegrown or farm-market produce into the fall and winter, and if so, where?

I mostly freeze things in soups and such, and store produce such as garlic, onions and potatoes in my insulated but unheated barn until around mid-December, then move things to the coolish mudroom in my house.

Good luck to all–and more on food storage later, when I study up a bit further.

(Disclosure: Amazon affiliate links earn me a small commission, which I use to buy more books for future giveaways.)

  1. Lana says:

    No cellars of any kind here in Texas. But I remember my grandma’s basement in PA — she always had canned tomatoes, applesauce and all kinds of jams and jellies.

  2. jo smith says:

    Someday would like to close off the end of the basement to use as a true root cellar. Right now the potatoes go into the unfinished portion… but it really isn’t cool enough. Do not know how they stored food in the south.

  3. cindy baugh says:

    I store fruits and veggies through canning. We recently bought a small farm and we have a root cellar but it needs work to use. I have been meaning to buy a book to learn more.

  4. Lewis E..Ward says:

    Would love to have two separate root cellars to store produce so that cabbages, potatoes and apples aren’t in the same room co-mingling flavors and releasing ethylene that induces physiological activity. We store winter squash in a cool bedroom and onions and garlic in the spare bathroom.

  5. Ellen O. Bender says:

    I tend to blanch & freeze fruits & veggies, but do can tomatoes as catsup. If i had an in-ground pool, I would have put a roof on that and turned it into a walk-down root cellar…. or put greenhouse panels (as the roof) and used it as a greenhouse… maybe my next home?!

  6. Ellen O. Bender says:

    To answer the actual question posed: I put my potatoes,apples, squash, watermelon, etc into the non-heated damp basement with airflow, but darkness.

  7. Mary Phillips says:

    Our new home has a root cellar which has kept potatoes nicely this past winter. Looking forward to remodeling to add more shelving for more produce next year.

  8. Jesse M says:

    I freeze a lot of items either cooked or raw depending on what they are, I have been storing some squash from a family friend in my cold garage and it seems to be working well so far. I also dream of a large root cellar someday :)

  9. Sam Yachup says:

    Wouls love to have a root cellar but a bit impractical on my property. We can jams, jellies, relishes, pickles, etc. but our cellar is too warm and light for longterm storage of leeks, onions and root crops. The Springhouses of my youth in Southwestern Pennsylvania were thick walled buildings built over flowing springs served beautifully for storing root vegetables, cabbages, sourkraut and the like. The 50 degree water kept the temperatures above freezing and added the moisture needed for successful storage.

  10. margaret says:

    THE CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED, but you can continue the conversation anytime.

    The winners (notified by email) are Cindy and Laura.

    Thank you all for your root cellar stories and tips. Fascinating stuff.

  11. Don says:

    I’ve built a root cellar that took me a couple of years. It all began when I was able to retrieve a large 32 ft. long (16ft. wide)section of galvanized culvert that the highways dept was replacing. I then rocked up a 16 x 32ft base in a bank covered the floor with rock crushed stone and gravel, and then placed the two halves of the culvert over it. I then put in a wooden end with a 8 x 4ft door for access and covered the top with heavy plastic and about 8 inches of topsoil. This is my first season(2015- 2016) but at this time I haven’t encountered any problems. As the cellar is close to my house I find it very convenient.

  12. Saird Bolduc says:

    We wrap any produce up in newspaper individually then put in loosely closed cardboard box. Pop them onto shelf in garage and they store well through most of winter. It stays around 40 so works good.

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